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P.M. Forni, Hopkins professor, founder of civility movement, dies

The Baltimore Sun

Pier Massimo “P.M.” Forni, a mild-mannered college professor whose popular book on civility inspired campaigns to counter a widely perceived trend toward rude behavior and harsh discourse in American society, died Dec. 1 in Towson from complications of Parkinson’s disease. He was 67.

A faculty member at the Johns Hopkins University from 1985 until 2014, Dr. Forni was a professor of early Italian literature and a scholar of the works of Dante and the Renaissance humanist and writer Giovanni Boccaccio. He decided to focus on civility in the 1990s while teaching a class on “The Divine Comedy” and realizing that he wanted his students to be kind human beings more than he wanted them to know about Dante.

“Courtesy, politeness, manners and civility are all a form of awareness,” Dr. Forni wrote. “Being civil means constantly being aware of others and weaving restraint, respect and consideration into the very fabric of this awareness.”

In 1997, Dr. Forni and colleagues established the Johns Hopkins Civility Project — now known as the Civility Initiative — a collaboration of academic disciplines that addressed the significance of civility and manners in modern life.

Dr. Forni became the face of the organization and its lead spokesman. He brought to the role a gentlemanly demeanor, a flair for poetic language and a beguiling Italian accent.

“He was the embodiment of civility,” said Daniel Buccino, who took over the Hopkins Civility Initiative when Dr. Forni stepped away from the project a few years ago. “He was so gentle and pleasant and curious. He used to say, when recruiting someone for the faculty, you want someone who is smart and nice, and he was that — lovely, thoughtful and considerate.”

Dr. Forni’s subject struck a chord with people who sensed that Americans needed guidance on fundamental etiquette and deferential behavior — in the workplace, on the road, in public places and at home. He became the news media’s first choice for comment when public displays of crude behavior begged for the thoughtful perspective of a lecturer in manners.

“His work was really the North Star of what we strive for,” Mr. Buccino said, noting Dr. Forni’s ability to steer debate about contentious issues toward the civil. Respecting others was a big part of the movement.

“This was not about an insistence that we all speak the same way or use the same table settings,” said Mr. Buccino, clinical manager of the Hopkins Broadway Center for Addiction. “It was driven by the underlying wish that we be respectful of others.”

By the time of the publication of his 2002 book, “Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct,” Dr. Forni enjoyed a level of celebrity that landed him appearances on television and radio talk shows. He was a sought-after speaker who visited college campuses and conducted workshops across the country.

Publishers translated his book into Italian, German, Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Portuguese and other languages, and it has had dozens of reprintings over the years, according to his New York agent, Lisa DiMona. Colleges and high schools created courses based on the book; some listed it for summer reading.

In 2010, having collected numerous stories about discourteous behavior and thorny social situations from readers of the first book, Dr. Forni followed up with a second: “The Civility Solution: What to Do When People Are Rude.”

His books and lectures sparked local civility movements across the country.

In Howard County, the “Choose Civility” campaign, supported by an array of local organizations, put Dr. Forni’s admonition on green-and-white bumper-stickers and magnets. The Howard County school system instituted a civility policy and printed thousands of civility bookmarks.

"A veritable rediscovery of civility is going on at both the local and national levels," Dr. Forni told The Baltimore Sun in 2007. "Communities such as Howard County, Cleveland Heights, Ohio, Duluth, Minnesota, and many others have launched civility-oriented initiatives to strengthen the bonds of civil society in their midst.”

That same year, Dr. Forni and colleagues surveyed Baltimoreans to determine what behaviors people in the area considered rude. They came up with a list of 10, from “discrimination in the workplace” to “using cellphones in mid-conversation or during a meeting.” Dr. Forni’s “Terrible Ten” also included aggressive driving, bullying, demeaning service workers, misusing handicapped privileges, littering, smoking in non-smoking areas, making jokes that mocked someone’s race or disability, and taking credit for someone else’s work.

Born and raised in Italy, Dr. Forni graduated in 1974 from the University of Pavia. He received a Ph.D. in Italian literature at the University of California Los Angeles in 1981. He was a fellow at the Harvard Center for Renaissance Studies in Florence. He became a U.S. citizen in 2007.

Dr. Forni’s third book, “The Thinking Life: How to Thrive in the Age of Distraction,” was published in 2011.

“His career in literature is often overlooked,” said Virginia Forni, his wife of 18 years. “He was really a brilliant man and a scholar. He taught and mentored many students who went on to become professors in their own right. He touched so many lives.”

Some of those students, she said, along with Dr. Forni’s colleagues, have written essays in his honor that will be published in a special edition of a Hopkins academic journal in March.

Mr. Buccino said the work Dr. Forni started continues. The Hopkins Civility Initiative, he said, “sustained the conversation about what kind of baseline of civility we want to operate from.”

Dr. Forni’s work continues to inspire civility efforts. Last June, Harford County rolled out its “Choose Civility” campaign to “uplift our community by promoting respect, restraint, and responsibility everywhere (including the internet).” The campaign is supported by the Harford County Public Library and the county government.

A memorial service for P.M. Forni will be held on Saturday, Jan. 5, at 11 am at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Baltimore.

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